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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Ausweis bitte !

“Can you prove that you are Jewish?” is the surprising question that I received at security control of the new synagogue in Munich [1]. The guard was politely asking me to prove that I am Jewish by showing him my identity documents.

Vigilant control in German synagogues appears necessary [2] and questioning visitors is a common measure of security [3].

Requesting identity documents to establish if someone is Jewish could be regarded as a pragmatic and indirect technique of ethnic profiling. Many Jews have easily recognizable Jewish names or surnames, and until recently Israeli identity cards even included an obligatory reference to the bearer's ethnic group [4]. Ethnic affiliation of emigrants from the former Soviet Union might also be established with a passport or a birth certificate because the Soviet governments have always regarded the Jews as a nationality [5] (ironically enough, citizens born from a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother also hold Jewish nationality).

Requesting someone to prove that he is Jewish by showing his identity documents is very different though and might appear as a quite disturbing practice for a German synagogue.

Anti-Jewish legislation in prewar Germany decreed that all Jews were obliged to carry identity cards that indicated their Jewish heritage, whereas Jewish passports were stamped with an identifying letter "J" [6, 7]. It could be noted here that the new synagogue in Munich opened on the anniversary date of the Kristallnacht [8], making therefore a clear reference to Nazi Persecution of Jews in Germany. Jews in today’s Germany do not need a mention of their religion or ethnicity on their identity documents anymore.

As far as I am concerned, the answer to the initial question is very simple: no, I cannot prove that I am Jewish with my identity documents. It simply never crossed my mind that anyone would ask me to [9, 10].

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Crucifix in the Classroom

A recent judgment of the Administrative Court of Augsburg provides an excellent illustration of the non-separation of Religion and State in Germany [1].

In 1995, the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany released the so-called “Crucifix Ruling” (Kruzifix-Beschluss) which overturned a Bavarian regulation requiring that a crucifix be hung in each classroom of the state’s primary schools [2].

The decision occasioned a public uproar in Bavaria and among the major political parties of former West Germany. Chancellor Kohl stated that "the crucifix as a symbol of Christian belief harms no one. After the XXth century's bitter experience with anti-Christian ideologies (sic) and their awful and inhuman effects, we feel a special obligation to pass these values on to future generations” [3, 4, 5]

In practice however, absolutely nothing changed at all since the Crucifix Ruling of 1995, and crucifixes still hang in public schools in Bavaria.

The government of the State of Bavaria decreed shortly after the Crucifix Ruling that for historical and cultural reasons, a cross will be hanged in each classroom; only in atypical and exceptional cases should the crucifix be removed.

An atheist teacher from Augsburg [6, 7] in southwestern Bavaria recently requested that a crucifix would be removed from his classroom. In August 2008, the Administrative Court of Augsburg decided that this crucifix must remain in his classroom.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Non-Separation of Religion and State in Germany

Religious freedom is constitutionally guaranteed in Germany. However, the basic principle of separation of religion and state does not exist. Public life and private life - where religion should belong - are therefore not divided.

Separation of children in school according to their religious affiliation is an official practice enforced by the German state. Children in German public schools must choose between an obligatory class in religious education and a class in ethics, where various issues of philosophy and morals are discussed. Religious education must therefore conform to the principles of the religious communities inside the State education system. The choice offered to an Atheist Jewish child is thus between being tagged by his/her schoolmates as a Jew or as unaffiliated to a mainstream religious group.

In Germany, the state collects a so called Kirchensteuer (church tax) from all registered members of tax-collecting religious congregations under public law (mainly of the Protestant and Catholic Christian faiths). These contributions amount to 8-9% of the income tax. They are used to pay the salaries of ministers, priests or rabbis – who for example administer marriage ceremonies and funerals - to pay the salaries of religion teachers in public schools, to pay community social programs - such as kindergartens and hospitals - or to pay the construction of buildings for public worship. Membership in a tax-collecting religious community must therefore be declared to the tax authorities. People who are not member of such a religious congregation must declare so in their taxation document and do not have to pay this contribution to the state. The German tax system therefore clearly categorizes tax-payers (German nationals and residents in Germany) according to their religious affiliation.

In these conditions, in is not possible in Germany to appear as a simple citizen devoid of any religious views. Expressions of hatred and discriminations against Jews have a long record in Germany, where anti-Semitism found its very culmination under the Nazi regime in a system of institutionalized racism and of deliberate extermination. It is also well established that public hostility towards atheists is not less widespread as towards any other ethnic or religious minority group. Religious separateness imposed by the German state appears to me as a dangerous and unnecessary springboard to religious intolerance. If religious freedom exists in Germany, legal religious separation policies and practices are an evident limitation to the freedom of thought.